Jun 30, 2017

13 Unsung Independent Horror Flicks

Article By: Tony Timpone

Fire up the barbecues, hit the beach and enjoy the ballgame, another Fourth of July looms for these enduring United States of America. As we enjoy the benefits of our hard-fought liberties this Independence Day, let’s also pay tribute to those scrappy independent movies that serve as a respite from all the empty calories offered by the summer multiplex blockbusters. Due to cheaper new production equipment and more delivery outlets (from big-screen TV streaming to tiny cell phones), the aughties and beyond have welcomed an explosion of challenging independent horror films. Many of these movies break at arthouse movie theaters and at genre film festivals like Montreal’s Fantasia (where we discovered all of today’s selections over the years), so keep your eyes peeled for future frights at venues such as these. Today Chiller invites the filmmakers themselves to provide insights on their Unsung Independent Horror Flicks for the Friday 13 (titles arranged alphabetically).

1. Dead End (2003)

A family’s late-night Christmas Eve roadtrip detours straight into Twilight Zone territory in this debut film from Frenchmen Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa. “There were many anecdotes from this fabulous production, our first movie—and in LA! It was a dream come true,” recalls Andrea, whose first novel, Ma Reine, comes out in August. “The movie was inspired by a traditional legend which can be found under various guises in different cultures, including American Indian tradition—that of the vanishing passenger. We were so excited about meeting [star] Ray Wise for the first time we crashed our car on the way to the meeting! Considering Dead End is about a car crash, the irony wasn’t lost on us. Thank God, ours had much less dramatic (and surrealistic) consequences.”

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2. The Devil’s Candy (2015)

Shot in Austin, Texas, this headbanger horror film, about new homeowners contending with satanic forces and a hulking killer, marked the sophomore effort of Australian helmer Sean (The Loved Ones) Byrne. “I was inspired by supernatural classics like The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen,” Byrne says. “I love how they depict a kind of hell on earth, a battle between darkness and light without featuring the Devil himself. Modern supernatural horror is often so literal with demons, vampires and zombies up front and center. It felt like some of the mystery had disappeared from the genre, so I wanted to return to something more classic, elegant, even cryptic; an evil in the air so to speak. But I wanted to do it with a really modern visual aesthetic and a sharp heavy metal edge. So the idea was to take a timeless brand of horror but treat it in a new way.”

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3. The Eyes of My Mother (2016)

Tyro director Nicolas Pesce says his rural shocker, which follows a young woman as she succumbs to madness after a family tragedy, drew inspiration from his early viewing habits. “I wanted to make a film that could affect and disturb the way I was affected and disturbed by horror films when I was younger,” he says. “I loved all the American Gothic films of the 1950s and ’60s like the William Castle stuff, and I wanted to make a film that fit into that tradition of cinema.”

Just with a lot more gore. “In the early moments of the film, the mother and daughter are seen dissecting a severed cow head,” adds Pesce, currently in post on his new film, Piercing. “The cow head featured in the film is in fact a real cow head. It was provided humanely by a local slaughterhouse. But when the art department returned to set with the severed head, no one had imagined how much blood would drain from it. Needless to say, there is a lot of blood in a cow. And seeing that much blood in one place, well, it makes you realize how much gorier real life is than a lot of horror films.”

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4. From Within (2008)

A small town contends with a curse that causes a suicide epidemic in this moody thriller directed by acclaimed cinematographer Phedon (Walk the Line) Papamichael. “The writer, Brad Keene, drew from his experiences growing up and the religious people he interacted with,” notes producer Chris Gibbin. “We shot in unused and somewhat rundown houses at the Veterans Administration at Perry Point VAMC, Maryland. Besides being an indie producer’s dream (streets that we could control 24/7, many unused houses laid out in a typical neighborhood configuration), they were the perfect setting for our story. We wanted to make a film that had elements of horror and magic, but still felt real. People scare me more than monsters.”

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5. Grace (2009)

Jordan (Cabin Fever) Ladd endures a most horrific pregnancy and resultant problem child in this disturbing chiller from first-time writer/director Paul Solet. “The film came from a conversation with a friend’s mother about the actual medical science behind carrying a dead baby to term, and the fact that that was a decision many mothers would make,” reveals Solet, who recently wrapped the John Malkovich crime thriller Unchained. “That level of commitment, that choice—to deliver a baby you had lost—was really powerful to me. It also made me consider my mom’s story. I had originally been a twin, but she lost my brother during the pregnancy. The doctors told her I didn’t have a chance, and she told them there was no chance in hell she was going to give up on me. She didn’t and here I am.”

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6. I Sell the Dead (2008)

This marvelously macabre horror film tags along with a pair of 18th century grave robbers (Lost’s Dominic Monaghan and Larry Fessenden, who also produced). Dublin-born director Glenn McQuaid discusses his film’s origins: “In the late ’70s and early ’80s, BBC2 ran a series of horror double bills every Saturday night. They covered the classics from Universal, RKO and Hammer, but also peppered the programming with some fairly (at the time) obscure and more contemporary films like The Crazies and Race with the Devil. This collection was really my first experience of horror, and it left a very strong impression on me.

“When I wrote I Sell the Dead, I wanted to reach back to those movies and make something that would sit well alongside them,” adds McQuaid, currently pitching a new horror yarn called The Restoration at Grayson Manor. “Folks like Freddie Francis, Terence Fisher and Val Lewton are very much an influence on the world I created. I also love cemeteries, and, in a way, I Sell the Dead is a love letter to them.”

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7. The Last Winter (2006)

Speaking of producer Larry Fessenden, the man who serves as the indie world’s best friend also directs movies of his own. Starring Ron Perlman and James Le Gross, this prescient horror picture deals with an environmental nightmare in the Arctic. “I wanted to show two men out in the unforgiving wilderness where one has knowledge of the land and the other has all the bravado but is suddenly vulnerable,” explains Fessenden. “There is a Kurosawa movie called Dersu Uzala that captures that vibe, which had some influence. And more than with my previous film Wendigo, The Last Winter was inspired by the writings of Algernon Blackwood, who so uniquely evokes the uncanny. I was worried about climate change when I made the film; I wanted to show how scary it would be if everyone just kept ignoring the warnings and acting as if nothing was wrong—to me that seemed like a world gone mad…and that was in 2005!”

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8. The Lost (2006)

This true-crime thriller features one of the screen’s most despicable thrill killers, 19-year-old Ray Pye (the electrifying Marc Senter). Right at the start, Pye murders two girls and gets away with it. Four years later, the fuse on the hot-headed psychopath is lit once more. “One of the themes that drew me to Jack Ketchum’s [original] book and that I tried to explore was how it’s relatively easy for people to get used to—and even tolerate—terrible human behavior,” says director Chris Sivertson, whose latest movie, the romantic thriller Heartthrob, awaits release. “Right off the bat, Ray is saying and doing awful things. But then you’re stuck with this guy as a main character. The more familiar we become with him, the more normal he seems to us. And some of the bite of his bad deeds is undercut by the fact that he’s funny—he has a ridiculously aggrandized view of himself, a terribly fragile ego and a clownish appearance. The excessively violent ending was an attempt to shock and disturb an audience who had been numbed to Ray’s world. I made it as nasty as I could because when we normalize bad people, things always get ugly.”

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9. Love Object (2003)

A mentally unbalanced young man (Dexter’s Desmond Harrington) grows infatuated with his life-size sex doll in this cult movie directed by current Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. producer Robert Parigi. “Someone showed me the Realdoll website, and the dolls had the repulsive inertness of cadavers I had seen at the LA County Coroner’s Office,” recalls Parigi. “So I wondered if the people who buy the dolls enjoy that and are acting out a kind of necrophilia.”

Parigi retains fond memories of working with genre great Udo (Andy Warhol’s Dracula) Kier, who played Harrington’s landlord. “We were rehearsing the scene where Udo carries a small box into his apartment,” he says. “Udo’s talking out loud to himself, ‘So I’m walking down the hallway, stroking my package, stroking my package.’ Everyone on set is cracking up, and Udo acts very innocent, ‘Why is everyone laughing?’ This made it even funnier.”

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10. Mulberry St (2006)

A viral outbreak in Manhattan’s Little Italy transforms residents into rat-like zombie creatures in this fast-paced sleeper, directed by Jim Mickle and co-written with star Nick Damici. “Nick had written a zombie script called Dead of Night, and we were hoping to do it as a no-budget first feature,” Mickle begins. “But it was complicated. Rural, heavy snow, all night exteriors, large cast. It was too ambitious to do as two guys living in NYC with no money. So after shelving it for a time, we got more and more desperate until Nick had the epiphany: We could transport the whole thing to Manhattan! Contain it entirely in Nick’s apartment building and the bar across the street. From there, the themes of rats and neighborhood gentrification bubbled up organically. It evolved into a contained, New York-centric zombie film out of necessity.”

Not as contained were the scenes of mass panic, pulled off rather ingeniously—and somewhat illegally!—by the intrepid low-budget crew. “We had no idea how to pull off a large scale NYC pandemic, so right before July 4th, producer Linda Moran and I had the idea to sneak into the firework celebrations and steal large crowd shots on the sly,” recalls Mickle, whose other indie winners include Stake Land, We Are What We Are and Cold in July. “We hiked up and down the FDR Drive with a camera tucked under my arm and fell into amazing footage of the NYPD closing down the highway and roping off the UN building. We found ourselves in the heart of parades surrounded by cop cars and ambulances with huge swaths of people running to get a good view of the festivities. By the time the night was done, I had hours of compelling footage to cut together, and with the right editing energy and sound effects, it all played as echoes of 9/11. All it cost was a subway ride and some elbow grease.”

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11. The Revenant (2009)

No, not the Leonardo DiCaprio Oscar bait. This one’s a modern-day buddy movie, where one of the buddies happens to be undead. “With The Revenant, I wanted to make the gnarliest vampire movie ever,” says visual FX artist-turned-director Kerry Prior, “so as I was writing the screenplay, the litmus test was always, ‘If I were sitting in a theater watching this for the first time, what would kick my ass?’ I consciously ignored the vampire lore that came from fictional sources, including cinema, Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, etc., and modeled the story after non-fiction historical vampire folklore. Especially inspirational—and hilarious—was Dom Calmet’s Treatise on Vampires & Revenants, which inspired the title.

“Ultimately, however, the movie was inspired by my friends,” adds Prior, currently putting the finishing touches on a horror movie called Virgin Forest. “The Revenant, more than anything else, is a story about friendship, and the lengths to which one might go to hang onto a best friend. The rest of it is just messed-up shit.”

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12. Subject Two (2006)

Set in the snow-covered mountains of Colorado, this tale of unethical reanimation experiments unfolds as a mash note to Mary Shelley, thanks to writer/director Philip Chidel: “I’ve always been a fan of Frankenstein—it’s my favorite of all the classic monsters—and I wanted to revisit it but with one main difference: instead of the doctor shunning his creation after it comes to life, what if he had embraced it? What kind of a relationship would there be? I had never seen that in a Frankenstein story before and found it fascinating. Even more so because my son was only a year old at the time, and I was still wrestling with the idea of being a new dad—and I knew no matter how hard I’d aim to do right by him, I’d still screw him up! So that inevitably played into the story and their relationship as well.”

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13. Zombie Honeymoon (2004)

A real-life tragedy motivated the creation of this award-winning New Jersey-lensed feature. “Zombie Honeymoon was inspired by the tragic passing of my sister’s husband, Danny Fraunhofer, back in March 2002,” says filmmaker David Gebroe. “Danny died in a surfing accident, and the goal of the film was to enshrine their personalities and the characteristics of their relationship in a very real and vivid way, hopefully reminiscent of the excruciating dramatics of a John Cassavetes film…and then to have all of that dropped right into the middle of a Romero-style zombie flick. In essence, I wanted an uneasy blend of high and low art. Hopefully, I achieved even a fraction of that goal.”

We could spend another day talking about our favorite independent horror films. What about you? Tell us on our Facebook page or go on Twitter using #Friday13.

Come see Tony Timpone at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival this summer, which runs July 13 to August 2. Find out more here.

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